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The value of face-to-face engagement in an online world.

People silhouettes

with Andrea Marquardt, Co-ordinator Community Planning and Engagement at Glenorchy City Council.

Technology now connects us like never before – but is our reliance on online engagement coming at the expense of face-to-face connection? Glenorchy City Council is exploring options for in person engagements for those who don’t want to, or can’t, engage online. 

The word “unprecedented” has become part of our vocabulary over the last 18 months. COVID-19 has led to changes in many aspects of our daily and professional lives, and we have all had to adapt the way we do things, including how we engage with our communities.

The use of various technologies has become more normalised and has helped keep us connected when we can’t all be together. However, we have recently noticed a growing call out in our community not to forget about those who can’t, or don’t want to, engage online.

Glenorchy City Council’s online community engagement platform, Let’s talk, Glenorchy, was launched in November 2020. Its benefits are many, including opening up our engagement activities to a different demographic and improving our ability to keep people informed on engagement outcomes and how their feedback contributed to the process.

However, there is also a risk of our engagement through the online platform coming at the expense of other forms of communication – a “set and forget” option rather than looking more deeply at our public participation goals and our promise to the public.

The City of Glenorchy has many strengths including our passionate community groups and volunteers, our sense of community and our natural and built spaces which offer people an opportunity to connect.

Like all communities though, we also have challenges. The City has an increasing level of people living alone which can lead to social disconnection. Our over 50’s population is growing which can mean that more people need support due to disability or health issues. There are limited affordable transport options, and those with language barriers or low literacy have reduced ability to participate in community life.

People’s access to the internet has improved but is still lower than the Tasmanian and Australian average, particularly in some lower socio-economic areas.

For many people, completing a survey online isn’t the best way for them to feel heard – and does it really meet our engagement expectations and outcomes?

While community engagement is just one aspect of the many projects that are undertaken by local government, it underpins how we understand the needs and aspirations of our communities. Councils are faced with increased community expectations to deliver improved outcomes for our communities and need to work with all those who have an interest, or are affected by an issue, to ensure effective and efficient solutions.

With this in mind, we have been looking across our Council at our engagement activities and encouraging Council officers to deeply consider their engagement objectives before automatically coming up with their – mostly online – engagement methods.

In order to really connect with the people who live, work and play in our City we are looking at how we can be proactive in going out into the community to listen to what people have to say.

One of our initiatives is our Community Yarns – a trial of up to four meetings a year where Council officers and Aldermen visit different areas of the municipality to meet with people to find out the priorities for their local areas.

The Community Yarns have used different engagement methods such as World Café style approach and card storming to allow people to work collaboratively to develop a shared vision. The Yarns have proven to be very valuable for both Council representatives and community members who have reported back that they have enjoyed the opportunity to voice their own views as well as listen to other people’s perspectives.

At a recent new skatepark engagement, skating enthusiasts had the chance to come together as a group to talk to a consultant about what they would like their park to look like and work in groups to build playdough creations of their ideal skate park. For many reasons the proposed skatepark had encountered several issues that had left skaters feeling disillusioned. By creating a space for the right stakeholders to come together in a fun environment the group came away with a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the project.

Last month, Council was engaging on multiple strategy documents. As well as online options, Council officers ran pop up sessions at our local library, visited neighbourhood houses and child and family centres and attended different project group meetings to gain feedback. Hard copies of documents and simple feedback forms were also left wherever we visited.

As well as gaining feedback on the strategies, there was an unexpected benefit – that people told us that they genuinely appreciated Council officers coming out into the community to reach out to people and ask their opinion.

At our community events, we try to add an engagement component. Sometimes this involves using the opportunity to get feedback on a specific project, but at other times it’s a chance to say hello and an opportunity for us to listen without asking for anything in return.

These are all simple approaches which resulted in not just Council getting feedback on projects but enabled the community to speak to Council officers and each other and engage in a way that met their needs.

There are many communities who currently don’t have the ability to get together in person, and other options to stay in touch are extremely important. Yet one thing that the current situation has taught us is people’s desire for personal interactions.

Online engagement and interaction is here to stay – as it should be. It is constantly evolving and is a vital way of reaching out to people, particularly in these uncertain times. However, as engagement practitioners we sometimes need to step back and remember the value and power of a simple conversation – and the impact that this can have in connecting people and communities.